Loeb top in Mexico, penalty demotes Solberg
12 March 2004
2003 World Rally champion Petter Solberg led from the first stage today [Friday] in his new Subaru Impreza WRC2004, setting two fastest times to end leg 1 of the Corona Rally Mexico with a 5.6 second lead over Sebastien Loeb.
However, Solberg's engine would not start at the entrance to the final service park and he and co-driver Phil Mills had to push the car uphill into the time control. They arrived late and incurred a 40 second penalty, which dropped them to fourth. Stewards also later imposed an extra penalty - 5 minutes - for receiving outside assistance, despite not asking for it. They thus plummeted further down the leader-board to 13th.
"I'm extremely disappointed by what has happened," said Solberg. "It's almost unbelievable. Everything was going so well on the stages that to lose all that good work like this, when we were returning the car at the end of the day, is tough to accept. Up to this point we had really had a good day. The stages were very difficult, some fast, some slow, I think we had a bit of everything, but there were no major problems. I was looking forward to a good fight with Sebastien and Marcus [Gronholm] tomorrow, but now it's just about getting experience."
Loeb, who also claimed two stage wins, suffered a puncture and brake problems this morning but reduced the Norwegian's advantage this afternoon. He now heads the field though by 8.4 seconds, courtesy of the Solberg's bad luck.
"Despite some small brake problems, which meant that the pedal was a bit 'long' towards the end of the special stages, it has been a good day," commented the Frenchman, "Last night's rain cancelled out the 'sweeper' role that I might have had to play, as I was first on the road. I don't think I lost any time due to that, except perhaps in SS3, when I also lost a few seconds by stalling in a hairpin. They are forecasting rain for tomorrow. That is not 'seasonal' weather, and it could create some surprises."
Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm is second despite choosing tyres for the opening two stages that were too soft in the drier then expected conditions.
"Today has been fine," said the Finn, "but I still don't think I have 100 per cent confidence. It's been a reasonably productive four stages, but there is still more to come from myself and the car. This morning's conditions were quite tricky, but I think we can try some different things tomorrow that will help us. The car is still very new and we just have to work with what we've got for now."
Carlos Sainz meanwhile was another to opt for tyres that were too soft this morning, he finished the day third, 14.1 seconds up on Ford's Markko Martin. The Estonian was not pleased with his form.
"Something was missing from me but I'm not sure what," he said, "Because of the altitude the engine doesn't produce the same kind of power and I struggled to learn how to drive the car with less power than I'm used to. It's not so nice to drive the car in the high mountains but that's the same for everyone."
Harri Rovanpera completed the top five, despite losing his brakes towards the end of both the first and third stages and also punctured a rear tyre.
"It's not been an easy day as we've had a lot of problems," explained the Finn, who returns to Peugeot after sitting out the first two events, "but the main thing is that we are still in a competitive position, and I plan to make the most of it. The car is still quite new to me, so we are making progress all the time. I'm feeling more and more confident and there's a long way to go."
Francois Duval, Mikko Hirvonen and Gilles Panizzi were sixth, seventh and eighth respectively. Panizzi suffered an oil leak after hitting a rock on the opening test while Mitsubishi team-mate Gigi Galli lost his brakes on the opening stage and tackled the second test with no stopping power at all, dropping two minutes. He is 11th.
"The afternoon was much better than this morning," noted Galli, "This car is a more professional car than I am used to driving, so I'm getting used to it slowly but there are still things that I am unfamiliar with and I think it is for this reason that I have been a bit over-cautious with the brakes as I am still driving on the safe side. It will be better once I am more familiar with the best way to use the brakes."
Of the rest Jussi Valimaki is the top privateer, in his Hyundai Accent WRC, ninth overall, over 30 seconds up Anthony Warmbold, who is tenth.
In the Production Car World Rally Championship [PCWRC] Daniel Sola leads the class, 27 seconds up on Subaru's Toshihiro Arai, while Jani Paasonen is third, Alister McRae fourth and Niall McShea fifth.
54 cars started today's opening leg, with only seven retiring during the day's four stages - there were no works retirements.
Leg two starts tomorrow at 0800hrs when crews leave Leon parc fermé and travel 22.17km east to the start of the first test of the day. The longest of the event, Leg two includes a further six stages and 154.34 competitive kilometres. Based around the single covered service area in Leon, the day kicks off with a 25.58km test, which starts at 0855hrs.